A degree of sanity, please

Posted: November 04, 2013

GREETINGS, college-bound high-school seniors!

Over the next few weeks, you'll wrap up your college applications. The process will be more aggravating than it was for prior seniors because the Common Application - an online marvel that lets you apply to multiple schools using one document - has gone bat-crap this year, first locking applicants out of the website then kicking them off just before they hit "send."

Of the 517 colleges and universities that use the Common App, at least 175 have no alternative form of application. So far, at least 42 (I'm sure more are coming) have extended their deadlines for early admission because of the delays the glitches have wrought. The extension, sadly, will just give you seniors more time to pop an artery over the application process.

That means more time to sweat over the essay you hope gets you into the University of Bright, Shiny Futures. More time to kick yourself for not founding some noble nonprofit by age 11 so you'd have a little community service to brag about. More time to regret how you spent weekends watching Netflix instead of cracking the spine on an SAT prep book. And - a biggie - more time to resent kids whose families can afford to send them to top-tier schools while your own parents snort, "Who do you think we are - the Kennedys?"

Well, high-school class of 2014, I have this to say to you:

You'll be fine.

If you don't land at the college of your dreams, you'll be fine. If you wind up hating school so much that you quit by Columbus Day, you'll be fine. If your brainiac classmates gloat about their full rides to Ivy League universities while you slave at Chick-fil-A to pay tuition at a place that no one ever heard of, you'll be fine.

You know why? Because the mistakes you make getting into, through and out of college are not life-or-death ones (unless you hit the bottle too hard or too often - which you can do whether you're in school or not, so why waste tuition to do something you could do for pennies on the corner with friends?). The mistakes only feel dire because colleges do a superb job implying, in their colorful and evil brochures, that a happy life is possible only if you attend the right school, for the right reasons, at the right time.

Which would be their school, because they said so, right now.

And you, my friends, are at risk for giving that view far more benefit of the doubt than it deserves because you're too young and inexperienced not to. What you don't know, because life hasn't yet tested (most of) you, is that a happy life is not a mistake-free life but a life where you learn from your blunders and grow.

How you handle them teaches you your strengths and weaknesses, broadens your understanding of what's important, even changes the definition of importance altogether. They grow you up, even though some of you are convinced that, at the wizened age of 18, you're grown up already.

You're not. But that should come as a relief. It means you're entitled to all kinds of forgiveness for the mistakes you'll make getting into, through and out of higher ed.

What makes me sad, though, is how the obscene price of a college education has put so much pressure on you to be perfect when it comes to college, since there's so little wiggle room to screw up when the cost of tuition equals the cost of a mortgage. I'm afraid you won't forgive yourselves for mistakes that students of my generation were able to make. Back then, tuition was low enough and decent jobs plentiful enough for noncollege grads, that the worst consequence to a flubbed college career was a bruised ego.

Today, if you screw up too badly, you could end up leaving college with massive debt, no degree and no job to show for it.

It's cruel.

The only way the cycle will break is for employers to stop demanding degrees for jobs that require a great work ethic and common sense more than they do a piece of paper proving you were willing to go into extraordinary debt when you were too young to take it on.

But that's just me.

Meantime, my young friends, the best advice I can give you is this: Go full tilt into your future, make your mistakes, learn from them, let them give you compassion for others' failings. And then repeat, again and again until you take your last breath - which, God willing, will be decades after you leave college.

It's the best way to a happy life.

Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

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